days after hurricane Katrina, as I hustled to restore our Baton Rouge
household to normal, my 9-year-old daughter's Christmas wish list grew
longer by the hour.
frequency, as I hauled fallen limbs to the curb and packed away the
portable generator, my daughter would tug on my sleeve to announce yet
another doll or video game that she wanted under the yuletide tree.
I recoiled at the timing
of her material longings. We were among the fortunate ones, after all -
south Louisiana residents who had dodged most of the hurricane's wrath
with no real damage to life or limb.
We had reminded our kids
quite often of our good fortune, and it seemed that my 9-year-old, young
though she is, should have been old enough to know that this wasn't the
week to wish for more.
Why was she focused on
filling her toy box in the midst of so much misery, with New Orleans
evacuees arriving literally next door?
Walking into the living
room after an afternoon of chopping brush, I got my answer. As I had
struggled to clear away the debris of the storm, and my wife put in
extra hours on statewide relief efforts, our daughter and 4-year-old son
had turned to television as a baby sitter. Thanks to extra visits with
children's advertising, our kids had learned of things they never knew
they wanted, yet were now dying to have.
It reminded me that even
in the face of the worst natural disaster in American history, our
national notion of contentment through consumption continues apace.
The product pitches
weren't limited to kids' programming, of course. While TV executives had
limited commercial interruptions in the early aftermath of Katrina to
accommodate breaking news, the regular cycle of TV ads soon resumed.
Not that there's
anything inherently wrong with advertising, which makes commercial
journalism possible. As a newspaperman, I rely on ad money to feed my
Even so, the marriage of
Madison Avenue messaging with hurricane disaster coverage created a
surreal juxtaposition for TV viewers. We witnessed citizens stranded on
rooftops and come-ons for the latest family sedan in the same breath. A
mother's fruitless search for her missing son was underwritten by a
designer stereo system. Scenes of endless Gulf Coast rubble shared
airtime with a 30-second spot for a luxury vacuum cleaner.
The promises of the
marketplace seemed strangely off-key at a time when so many people had
lost everything they owned, yet pledged to endure. And the ads continue
to strike a discordant chord as another Christmas shopping season
One of the most striking
things about this tragedy has been the way that so many evacuees are
affirming their self-worth in the wake of financial ruin.
It would be wrong to
romanticize the impoverishment of the displaced as some Amish ideal of
yeoman simplicity. The pain of so much material loss cannot fully be
imagined by those of us whose households remain intact.
But the resiliency and
bonding of so many evacuees, even when dispossessed of things held dear,
remind us that community, not consumption, is the true underpinning of
the human spirit, and the spirit of Christmas.
The aftermath of Katrina
has sparked what could be a useful national discussion on the nature of
poverty and the need to reduce it. The deepest suffering inflicted by
the storm seems to be among New Orleans' urban poor. The president and
other leaders have promised to use the rebuilding effort to replace
pockets of poverty with pockets of prosperity.
The idea seems rooted in
giving more Americans a ticket to the American dream.
Maybe it's time to
revisit the definition of that dream, so often framed as an endless
shopping spree for the latest auto, appliance, or gadget from the global
If Katrina manages to
make us think more about who we are and less about what we own, then
maybe we could alleviate not only material poverty, but spiritual
That is what the real
promise of Christmas has always been about.
Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.